Several second chances
By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001
TAMPA -- The defendant standing before Circuit Judge Florence Foster had violated his probation five times, and prosecutors wanted to send him to prison.
"I really think I will give you one more chance not to go to prison," Foster said. "Be sure to do what you are supposed to do."
Within moments, the defendant was walking out of the courtroom, on probation. Another defendant, waiting her turn, watched approvingly.
"She's so fair," said Danica Worley. "She really is."
Foster will be in the national spotlight today as she decides how to punish former New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry for violating his probation a fourth time when he binged on cocaine in February.
If she decides against sending him to prison, as prosecutors want, it won't be anything unusual. She gives scores of defendants with drug problems the same chance, time and again.
Another judge might use Strawberry's high-profile case to look tough on crime. But Foster has used the attention to send a different message, unpopular with some in law enforcement, that drug use should be treated as a disease, as well as a crime.
"People are very punitive until someone in their family has these problems," Foster said.
Foster's decisions have put her at odds with prosecutors. Privately, judges dislike her demeanor as well. "Does she have that presence about her? That intimidating presence? No," said Rick Terrana, a criminal defense attorney in Tampa. "I think that may lend itself to a false perception that she is weak."
For most of her 47 years, Foster has followed her own path. In college, she explored philosophical Taoism as a religion. As a lawyer, she ran for a judgeship even though she had been a lawyer barely five years.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, Foster was raised by her mother and stepfather and didn't meet her birth father until she was 18. She attended New College in Sarasota, attracted by its non-traditional curriculum.
To make money for college, she worked as a bartender. She married and divorced, then decided to attend law school, graduating from Stetson in 1985 at age 31. She worked as a public defender in Pinellas County for a year and clerked for U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich.
She met her current husband, Robert, then a lawyer, at a Bar luncheon. They wed soon after their first date, and have two children, ages 13 and 11.
One day, 14 years ago, while attending Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Foster said, she had a revelation and became a born-again Christian. Religion has remained a strong influence on her life, she said.
In 1990, she turned to God to decide whether to run for a Hillsborough Circuit Court judgeship. She prayed about the campaign, and later decided to follow God's calling. She won, beating two opponents.
She ran into controversy immediately. She was reassigned from the juvenile division after articles in the Tampa Tribune questioned her decisions. At her new assignment as a family law judge, a group called Mothers Against Judicial Incompetence formed to oust her from the bench, saying she was biased in favor of men in divorce and custody cases.
She moved to drug court in January 2000, attending judicial seminars that taught her how drugs alter a person's mind. She remembers a conference when a number of people now working to help addicts admitted to having been addicts.
"If a judge had not given them a break, they would not be able to do their jobs," Foster said.
On the bench, Foster cuts a regal bearing with a prim posture. But when she speaks, her imperial air goes away, and she sounds more like a mother scolding a naughty child.
"You know that little voice in you that says, "I shouldn't, I shouldn't,' listen to that voice," Foster told a defendant in April. "I haven't given up on you."
In another case, prosecutors asked her to send a defendant, Isaak Green, to prison for a year.
"Mr. Green, this is your lucky day," Foster said, before offering him community control and drug probation. She warned him to stay off drugs.
"Cocaine has a loud voice, and it's been talking to you in your ear," she said.
Foster's bailiffs tell her defendants don't really listen. She keeps up the practice anyway. People, she said, "want their judge to talk to them."
In November, Foster told a defendant that she wouldn't send him to prison because he was a "small, thin white man with curly hair" who would likely become a sexual target behind bars.
The NAACP demanded an apology, and news organization across the nation picked up the story. Foster later said she was sorry her remarks had offended people, but stopped short of saying she was wrong.
She said the criticism won't stop her from giving a break to someone deserving.
When judges talk about her, or when the press criticizes, she jogs and prays.
"I'm there to do the right thing, and if I do the wrong thing, I will find out real fast," she said.
- Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376.
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